Before COVID-19, when we heard the word "virus," most of us thought about our computers. Cyber-security terminology has borrowed from the biological world because of the similar ways that viruses spread and can be combated. Both rely on hosts for transmission and can be prevented by immunity, which for a computer comes in the form of antivirus software rather than the injection of a vaccine. Perhaps the most important similarity is that computer viruses also spread surreptitiously, often causing serious damage before being detected. In other words, both are pretty scary.
Although the term computer virus was coined already in the 1980s, it was popularized the following decade by a swelling genre of cyber movies (remember Hackers?) as well as the first real-life public malware scare in 1992 when the Michelangelo virus — named after the famous painter with the same March 6 birthday — spread to some 5 million computers, mainly through floppy disks.
Of course, talking about computer viruses when a real-life pandemic is still wreaking havoc across the world may raise eyebrows. Yet, one clear side effect of the current health crisis is that more and more of our lives, particularly working lives, are moving online. The cyber-security risks, for example, in the proliferation of Zoom and other video conferences puts everything from our images to our passwords at risk of exploitation.
As our economy becomes more digitized, faceless and harder to understand, the stakes are bound to keep rising. Yet, advances in computing could help us learn lessons to fight both health and cyber threats, as pointed out in a recent article in Welcome to the Jungle about those combating viruses in our computers and our bodies: "With both disciplines plotting similar paths toward data-driven threat response, there is surely considerable benefit for both in gaining a greater understanding of each other's strategies, successes, and challenges."
Nobody right now expects either virtual or biological viruses to be eradicated any time soon, and we've learned that our fate remains largely in our own hands — which you should wash regularly, and use to change your passwords at least once a month.
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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